New Orleans is a city that assaults your senses. A heady mix of smells, sights and sounds, the city has a rich history and culture formed by a unique mixture of African, Spanish, French and Caribbean influences. The earthy creamy smell of crawfish etouffee mixes with the discordant clash of jazz and blues bars and college karaoke in the alcohol soaked din of Bourbon Street. A macabre fascination with death, the occult and voodoo coexist with a joyful ardor for life and food and music. There is no place quite like The Big Easy.
Take a cab from the airport. You won't need a car, and leisurely exploring the cafes of the French Quarter and antique stores of Magazine Street in the Garden District will reveal hidden treasures that you might otherwise miss. Like the great European cities, this is a place in which to get lost.
Ride on the famous open-air street cars down St Charles Avenue to see quintessential New Orleans architecture. Hundred-year-old oak trees shade grand mansions, their balconies wrapped in intricate cast iron, while shaded porticos hide hints of gothic mystery.
Stay at The Saint Hotel, a stylish new hotel on the edge of the French Quarter with a funky contemporary meets classical design and join the nightly revelry at the bordello-chic Burgundy bar, elaborately furnished with velvet walls, or at the Halo rooftop bar overlooking the lights of the Quarter.
Rich culinary cultures clash vibrantly in the Big Easy, and this is not a place to watch your calories. Don't miss traditional crawfish etouffee, gumbo or boudin at the Gumbo Shop or at Mother's Restaurant. Try the classic meat-stuffed pies at the Crescent Pie and Sausage Company. Local seafood and seasonal produce inspire the traditional family favorites "our mamas make" at the gay owned EAT New Orleans.
Herbsaint on historic Saint Charles features upscale French and Italian inspired Southern dishes, while Stella offers daring modern Southern food in a small brick-walled restaurant in the Quarter. The courtyard at Cafe Amelie is a romantic setting for al fresco dining.
The confluence of cultures has created a vibrant arts scene of all kinds. Check out the Arthur Roger Gallery in the Warehouse District and the David Harouni Gallery in the French Quarter to see notable New Orleans artists.
For an adventure outside the city, drive about 30 minutes out of town for an airboat swamp tour. To check out a neighborhood undiscovered by tourists, spend some time in Bywater and eat local at the consciously edgy Suis Generis.
Begin your nightly navigation towards inebriation off the beaten (gay) path. The bartenders at Cure, one of Esquire's Best Bars in America 2011, will challenge your notions of what a cocktail can be. For small plates and more traditional cocktails, Bouligny Tavern will kickstart your nocturnal adventure.
When you've had enough of the low roar of straight revelry, Bourbon Street empties into the gay bars, with the Bourbon Pub and Oz battling for attention on the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann. Southern cornfed boys flirt with their slow drawls and lazy smiles, and the tried and true trade for beads works on most weekends.
When it comes to nightlife, "Laissez le bon temps rouler" is enforced 24/7. The gogo boys show just a little bit more (OK, all of it), the drinking goes on just a little bit later (OK, all night) and if you don't stay out until the street sweepers are rumbling down Bourbon, you haven't really experienced New Orleans nightlife.
Drinking is a mobile, and continuous, activity on Bourbon Street, in one of the few cities where you can walk around with a cocktail in your hand 24 hours a day.
If you want to take your mobile drinking problem a pedal further, the Confederacy of Cruisers bike tours is the place to go. They offer a variety of guided tours, but the History of Drinking in New Orleans Bike Tour is truly unique. As you learn about New Orleans history from rum smuggling to the present, you'll cruise around with drink holders attached to your handlebars. No joke.
New Orleans' fascination with death is on display most beautifully as you explore Lafayette Cemetary. The above-ground tombs are faded mini-marvels of antebellum architecture, and the only U.S. equivalent to Paris' Pere Lachaise.
A city that celebrates the macabre like no other, New Orleans is a bewitching place to spend Halloween. The oppressive heat of August has faded, and the city, as always, is ready for a party.
Halloween New Orleans is one of the only 100% donation event weekends in the U.S., and has raised more than $4.5 million for Project Lazarus, a home for men and women living with AIDS. Kick off the weekend buttoned up at the black tie Lazarus Ball, held at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Friday night's party at the House of Blues begins your sybaritic slide into excess, culminating in the Monster Brawl (think Frankenstein meets Fight Club) on Saturday night. Nurse your hangover and end your visit to NOLA at Sunday's Halloween Brunch on the Steamboat Natchez as it glides gently down the Mississippi.
TOM WHITMAN is a partner in Alternative Luxury Travel, a luxury and adventure travel company catering to the needs of gay and lesbian travelers. Get more info at travelALT.com.